Lifeforce Chapter 36
"Every morning, I wake up and forget just for a second that it happened. But once my eyes open, it buries me like a landslide of sharp, sad rocks. Once my eyes open, I'm heavy, like there's too much gravity on my heart."
―Sarah Ockler,Twenty Boy Summer
The Bloody Star
When Ratchet finally made it away from the ashen-coated wasteland, he found himself on what used to be a road again. Buildings half-standing poking out of the rubble but not high enough to block his view of the dimly lit sky. The amber lombax felt his stomach tighten when he spotted the hilltop again, seeing it now from another angle. It looked far less golden and pretty.
He stopped. He knew he couldn't stall it any longer, but told himself that this was truly the last time he'd stop before getting to the top. Just get it over with. He breathed in, and out, though it usually failed in helping most days.
Ratchet walked towards the hill, his heart slowly beginning to beat faster.
They had waded through the collapsed city for what felt like an eternity. Ickabar was sure a day at least had to have passed; the sky was neither dark nor light so it as hard to tell. They walked in single file; him at the front, Fergus behind; Leo and Duck a little closer together behind them, both trying to avoid what they saw on the ground. Fergus and Ickabar where beyond caring about where they stepped now. Ickabar felt an emptiness that seemed to take up his whole body; he tried to remember what he was doing and memories that usually calmed him in times of sadness. But what he felt now was no sadness. His body wouldn't let him feel just in case the blows got worse.
Just in case.
Someone passed him, slowly trekking up a slope; whether it was made by sand, dirt or debris he did not know. It blocked their way. He was so close yet it still felt like miles; he could see the treetop of the trunk that sat on the hill peering at him just over the tip of the mound. Leo stood at the top a moment later, having passed Fergus. Fergus seemed to have slowed down just like Ickabar did.
Leo raised a hand, pointing. His body was pivoted to the side, toes facing forward but his head looking back at him as his hand gestured ahead of him. Ickabar felt helpless as his legs moved him up the slope to join him. He didn't want to look. Leo's face was latched in disbelief and vacant horror. It hadn't sunk in. It must be too big to sink in.
At the top of the slope, Ickabar couldn't look away or shield himself. His heart leaped and sank all at once. The neighbourhood he'd lived in for years was barren and demolished. Bars and outlines, like rusted scaffolding, where all that remained of some of the houses. The road was ironically bare of any rubble; it was all around them that gnarled shapes littered. The bodies where there, but Ickabar could barely distinguish their filthy forms from the rubble anymore. The neighbourhood was charred to black, and the sky was tinted red with the sunset or sunrise.
And there he saw his home, standing almost untouched on the sloping road nearby the hill, where his children would look out the windows and mimic the 'whoosh' sound the grass made when the wind brushed over the field. Ickabar stared at it for moments, then took off, running towards it. He heard Fergus call out behind him to wait, but he barely registered it.
He arrived in a blur; moving over the distance between his front door and the dune top in what felt like a second. And yet something stopped him from going in. He saw the ash and rubble coating the sides of his home; the door was ajar and inside the lights where off. Dark. A breeze floated out to his face.
Ickabar's shaking arm reached and he gripped the side of the door, and forced it open. It creaked mournfully as he pushed it aside and stumbled in. He was on the landing. Standing there, panting and doused in a cold sweat, Ickabar felt more alien than he ever had. It was so quiet, and so empty. He couldn't see his wife.
Despair prickled at his eyes and his heart was pulling. Desperate, he stumbled into the living room, past the couches. They couldn't not be here. They had to be here.
"Percy!? Jan?!" His voice came out in a croak. He called again, louder, and listened. No sound came from upstairs.
He turned his head, and Ickabar saw broken bricks sitting near the kitchen. Like breadcrumbs, they where dotted just outside it. An odd light was cast from around the corner, not daylight or fire. Ickabar's fur bristled at the chill of the air coming from it.
The world was muted. Ickabar walked to the vacant doorway to the kitchen, and there he stood. There the wall was demolished and the curtains flapped, torn, in a wind he could not feel. The floor littered with rubble, and among it, lying in a pool of broken metal and rock, lay his beautiful wife.
Ickabar's legs gave way beneath him and he fell against the wall. He opened his mouth but he couldn't scream. Her face was so still, her eyelids closed, her thick curly hair drawn out around her like sunlight. He didn't need to see how still she was or the blood on her sky-blue clothes, to know that she was dead.
His arms wrapped around her and he held her to his chest as red-hot tears swam down his cheeks and onto his chin. The pain engulfed him and the emptiness that had held him firm through it all shattered and melted. He could no longer tell himself that it wasn't true.
You're my world, Jan. I can't live without you. I love you. I love you...
"Jana..." He wept, his body curling over. He didn't hold back the sobs or the tears. He couldn't stop crying and he did not try. His wife was gone. Jana was gone. His hand drew through her golden hair to her face. He remembered her eyes and how they lit him up as they danced, her smile and her toothy grin. Her anger and her sadness. All gone, to somewhere or nowhere at all. Somewhere he could not follow.
A sob caught in his throat and he lifted his head, eyes blurred by the tears. His mind swirled. Jan was gone. But then, in the midst of his despair, just as he thought he'd cry forever, something wriggled against his stomach, a small whimper waking him up.
He looked down. There, encased in an embrace still firm even after death, was a little pale gold bundle. In Jana's arms was his baby girl, unharmed, alive, and shielded by the blast by her mother's body and soul. She opened her tiny mouth and let out a shriek that tore at him. But she was alive. Loud, alive, her little hands curled into fists against her chest.
Ickabar, his body numb, felt his arms slip away from his wife, the pieces of his heart breaking even more as he had to let her go. His hands wrapped around his daughter, his palm lifting her head, the other on her back, so small but so warm. He stared down at her, her eyes screwed shut as she wailed and wriggled, and held her to his chest. His body rocked back and forth as he held her, the tears coming again, quieter. They died away.
He heard voices calling to him. He barely recognised him, but his body must have, for his legs lifted him up and Ickabar walked out of the kitchen, to the door, and out into the open. The purple lombax moved slowly, his mind in a haze. It swirled between his daughter, alive, and Jana, lying there, or dancing in the disco-light, or smiling at him in the morning when he first opened his eyes.
Fergus and Leo stood, watching him, their eyes wide as they feared the worst. Ickabar looked at Fergus, vacantly. Leo swallowed.
Ickabar's heart pulled and he ducked his head, holding his sobbing baby closer to his face like a child clinging to a teddy bear.
Leo's choked voice murmured. "Oh, Ick – I'm so, so sorry..."
Duck's voice, aghast and exhausted, called out suddenly from a few yards away. Ickabar's eyes opened and his brain began functioning again. The agony he felt was replaced again by the worry, the horror, and the desperation. Where was Percy? Raym gone, his daughter in his arms. Where was...?
He couldn't move. For a few seconds, he stood, his breaths heaving. Then he thrust his daughter into Duck's arms and ran into the house, stumbling up the stairs. Leo ran up the road, looking in the rubble, near the other houses, their voices all calling for Percy.
Fergus had gone around the back, then further downhill. Around a corner. His face in a frown, but his fists curled so light his fingernails dug right into the rough flesh. He turned his head, looking left and right, but saw no sign of the purple child.
"Percy?!" He yelled, again, and listened. Nothing came to him. He walked on, around the roads created by piles of rubble alone. As he turned the corner, he saw the bar-like remains of a house, collapsed, some still standing up and tangled in with fences. Charred fences, moulded together. Fergus continued walking to the thin, tangled rods that blocked his path.
He saw something hanging from them like a decoration, but his mind didn't notice it. He got closer. Fergus felt something inside him go cold. His body and mind turning to stone as he realized what it could be.
Fergus stopped at last. His knees didn't buckle. He was trapped in his still, unresponsive body as he looked closely, trying to deny it, trying to reason it away. But he couldn't.
Hanging by severed strings, tangled and stained in blood was a little star-shaped locket, turning from side to side where it hung, silent.
Ickabar had come out of the house when he returned. His head was twisting in every direction, his pale eyes wide and almost mad with grief. He saw Fergus walking towards him, his fists clenched, his shoulders stiff. Fergus passed Duck, clutching the baby in his arms, and he didn't look at Leo as he ran back to meet him.
It was just Ickabar and Fergus, facing each other. Fergus's eyes were glazed over, and like a robot with no emotion he lifted his arm, his face twisting as his fingers peeled away. Ickabar looked down at his palm, and saw the bloodied little locket.
His world ended, and his heart shattered into nothingness. He cried out, a strangled wail of agony as he fell to his knees. His cry lifted across the field. Duck's weeping did not reach him, or Fergus's silent streaming tears, or Leo's quiet sobs.
All there was in existence was him, and the pain, killing him inside. Ickabar wished for death, for he could not take it.
His son was dead. His son.
They had lit a fire. They did not know why. In a silence too heavy to lift, Leo and Fergus dug the graves. One would be empty, with only a few trinkets to embrace the soil. They had not found the body. They searched and found only red stains, too much for someone so small to survive from loosing. Daveed held the baby, weeping too quietly to be heard. The others could not cry, for they had cried all that they could. Hurt all they could. The far future was not on their minds, for whatever future it was, it held nothing for them.
They dug the graves on the hilltop; the hanging branches brushing against their backs. Then the two went back towards the house, wading through the trodden, scorched grass. They waited.
From the darkened doorway Ickabar emerged, his back straight and his eyes ahead, emptier than they had ever seen them. In his arms he carried his wife, her head against his chest, wrapped in a sheet that was not as white as it should have been. Ickabar stopped beside Fergus as the two parted to let him through, but as Fergus watched the side of his face, he did not turn to look at him. His pupils remained ahead, yet Fergus felt he was watching him back, maybe. In a hollow, barely registering part of his mind he knew he was here with him.
He began walking again. Walking after him was the hard part, up the hill he did not waver. There was nothing to dread, nothing to try and stall or avoid anymore.
Ickabar reached the grave that had been dug for his wife. Slowly, he knelt as they caught up with him. He set her beside him, not lowering her down yet. Ickabar looked at her face, his face set in a blank stare that glazed over and watery. His hand hovered by her cheek, as if hesitant to touch her, then rested against it. His body tensed and he gave an inward sob, choked...then went still again. Unable to cry because he simply could cry no more.
They lowered her into the grave, wrapped in white. Ickabar stood, his legs shaking, his hand hovering over the shovel now as he stared at the limp form below. What was left of his coherent thoughts tried to tell him that it was no longer his wife, she was gone elsewhere, and that he had to do this. His fingers gripped the shovel at last, and broken he helped his friends fill in the grave once more.
It was sunset, he knew now, when he placed the last small rock upon the graves. Decorated like garden pebbles, neat and simple rectangles draped out like red carpets ahead of the gravestones. Carved by Leo from fallen walls, using tools from abandoned basements. Leo had written their names but Ickabar couldn't bear to look at them, but stared at the stones instead. All he could think about was how he wanted to hold them again, just one more time, his wife and his son. His little son, who probably hadn't understood any of it. He hadn't been with him when he died.
Ickabar did not get to say goodbye.
They others took shelter at the bottom of the hill as night fell. Ickabar remained at the hilltop. He knew this place. He'd lie here when he was young with the people he loved. Now the people he loved would lie here forever.
And Ickabar knelt there, neither awake nor asleep, through the darkness.
Fergus came up the hill when morning broke. Ickabar barely noticed time had passed, but was now standing, looking down at the graves with the same vacancy of before. Looking like he was being pulled down by gravity that wished for him to lie as well.
Fergus came to a stop beside him. What could the possible say? Nothing. If he did he felt like he would fall apart. It was like being frozen solid, only on the inside and in the mind. You can't do anything but move your useless body around doing nothing.
"I loved them more than anything in the world, Fergus." Ickabar said, his voice blank. "...But I couldn't protect them."
The self-loathing hardened his last words just a little. But it faded away, leaving him empty once more. Fergus swallowed, watching the graves, unable to look at his best friend.
He had to be truthful.
"Tenahee still needs you. She's still here, and you're still here. She needs you to live, Ickabar. Do it for her." While you still have the chance.
The baby, as if hearing her name, or somehow knowing, began crying at the bottom of the hill. Loud, unhappy, frightened. Ickabar blinked, as if waking from a daze. His ears twitched and his eyebrows lifted. He turned his head and looked down hill.
The purple lombax stumbled back to his daughter wordlessly. Duck held her out with no hesitant and he took her into his own arms, holding her tight against his chest. She wriggled unhappily before clinging to his chin and his shirt with either hand, her cries falling to quiet whimpers. Ickabar held her so her little cheek rubbed against his; so soft and warm, it breathed what life he still had back into his body.
Fergus was right as he always was when he needed to be. Tenahee was still here, in his arms. He knew the future now. She would live, and be happy, even if he himself never saw that future.
Leo's voice was punctuated by a splitting crash. Tearing through the rubble of the nearby houses, a squad leered at them, beginning their fire on their newly spotted targets. Leo waved an arm, running along another path away from them. Duck followed, stumbling.
"C'mon, we have to go!" Leo yelled back. Fergus took one step back, then another, scowling as he finally turned and fled after him.
Ickabar looked up at the hilltop one last time, before he too turned and fled with his daughter clutched to his chest.
Ratchet stumbled and fell to his knees, his breaths laboured and coated with sweat. He did not feel sick, he felt horribly clear. Every thought that ran through his brain felt sharp and precise.
How could he?
Ickabar's son. Percival Locksher was...
Ratchet lifted his hands to his face, pressing his eyelids as if to try and stop tears prickling, but instead his eyeballs felt as dry as sandpaper. As if they had been wide open for too long. It hurt so badly and he didn't even know them. Thousands of children must have perished here, scared and alone, without mercy. How he'd been able to look at Tachyon without feeling like vomiting he'd never know.
But he hadn't known. Ratchet found it disturbing now, how the number had become a statistic, something that made him angry. He'd heard once that it was impossible for the mind to think of every single person that lost someone, and all the different ways they took it. But now that he'd seen one it was enough.
He hadn't just seen it. Ratchet knew that he'd felt Ickabar being torn in two inside. It was a vaguely familiar feeling...only for Ickabar it was far, far worse.
How could Tachyon do it?
He's a soulless monster. He did it and he did it with pride, just like my father. What was it, great pleasure, he said...?
His fingers dug right into his palms as he thought about it. If he hadn't been wearing gloves...
A small light swooped past his line of vision. Ratchet stared stupidly at his hands for a few seconds before his neck finally moved. There it was, hovering a few feet away from him, small and bobbing like a firefly tinted blue.
Ratchet stood up slowly. So much for not stopping again. "So uh...Do I follow you?"
It sped off as soon as the words where out. To the roads again, not to the hill. Ratchet had no time to frustrate over the delay, he tore after it, turning through winded roads created by stiff rusted rubble, never seeing the end of any direction he took. He skidded around another corner, his heart beginning to pound with effort. No food, restless sleep, all of it was taking its toll.
But he still ran. I can do this. I won't lose this mission, this battle. I won all the other times the odds seemed impossible. I have to. It can't end with me getting lost here.
He turned the corner and flew right into a web of old cables.
He lifted his arms in reflex, and crashed through them. The cables ripped, letting him through, but as soon as he lifted his arms away from his vision, that very vision changed.
Ickabar stumbled over the metal scattered at his feet, doing his best to avoid the sharp points as he narrowly dodged a plasma blast. It hit the wall to his left, melting the deep metal right to the floor. He forced his legs into another boost, near leaping. Fergus was behind him, Leo, too, Duck just at his heels. He was ahead, the furthest away from the pursuers. Suits, and one of those tall four-legged machines with one of the orange fish at its dome, shooting lasers at them like a rifle to geese.
Ickabar saw a mound ahead. Panic stabbed at his mind. That would slow them down, they'd be easy targets –
Fergus had scooped up various things lying on the ground. He was fiddled with them, dragging a cable around a cylinder container, teeth gritted – Leo saw what he was doing and his eyes bulged.
"Move!" He pushed Duck up the slope, and the clambered up as Fergus turned on his heel and tossed the small contraption.
The explosion rattled the ground. The suits at the front fell, and the large mech almost toppled but it wasn't enough to tip it. It was, however, enough to give them the time they needed to scramble uphill. Fastoon's bumpy landscape became both a hindrance and a blessing at different points.
Ickabar made it to the top, Tenahee wailing quietly in his arm. Too tired to scream at this point. Ickabar found himself on a road, still standing strong. Which way?
His mind worked slowly. He knew this road. Ickabar knew what his destination was. What he had to do.
He wrapped both arms around his baby and stifled a sob, turning left and running. The others followed him blindly. He didn't know how this would end for them or himself. But his daughter was going to live, even if it was without him.
They ran. Fergus looked back over his shoulder and saw the suited fish having trouble with the slope. They would lose them for now, but it wouldn't be long. The cragmite wanted all lombaxes gone. None would be left alive. Scowling, he went after the others.
They collapsed in a vacant building, barely standing. Maybe it wasn't even a building, just some odd formation that happened to fall into place to create a roof and some walls. Low-roofed. They where bugs hiding beneath pavements.
Ickabar was just at the entrance, looking out onto the city. Here everything was still and quiet. No fires, no falling rubble, and for now no suited fish trying to end their lives. Tenahee was curled in his arms, whimpering softly, but no longer crying.
Ickabar's finger absently stroked her cheek as he looked out at what little he could see of the area around them. Duck was on his stomach, panting. They had minutes to rest.
Fergus eyed him. He swallowed, not out of nervousness, but to dampen his dry throat. "...This world is over." He remarked quietly. "There's not much to look at."
Ickabar remained quiet for a moment, and did not turn his head. "...There's everything to look at. This was what we were."
Although they did not allow you to be 'we' to us, once. Fergus, in the depths of his mind, wondered if things had gone different, where Ickabar would be. Ickabar had every reason to hate them irrationally like the cragmite did. Not to the same level...
If the cragmite had asked for him to come with him, would he have gone?
Tenahee yawned softly in her father's arms. Looking at her, Fergus couldn't imagine it. The cragmite would never ask. Ickabar was a lombax. That was the only thing that mattered about him to the cragmite now.
"I dreamed of leaving this place, Fergus, so many years ago." Ickabar murmured, turning his head a little. His voice was quiet and soft. "...But now I wish I could have seen it remain as it had, forever."
"...It's the end of Fastoon. What this planet...what we had can never be again." Undefeated Lombaxes, the saviours of the universe. Technology and cities ahead of all others. Tarnished forever in memory.
Ickabar sadly looked at Fergus, then at the city once more.
"I'm glad to be with you, Fergus... at the end of us."